Track and field might have found a way to solve its marketing problem in the United States.
Sell itself as a prizefight.
The U.S. Olympic trials begin today in Sacramento, Calif. They will conclude July 23, and the final event is shaping up like the 15th round of a dramatic heavyweight bout.
Between now and what could be a pair of monumental 200-meter dashes, expect more trash-talking and posturing along the likes of Ali-Frazier and Tyson-Holyfield.
In the men's 200, it will be Michael Johnson against Maurice Greene. Johnson, the only man to win the 200-400 double in the Olympics, against the only one to sweep the 100 and 200 at a world championships. Johnson owns the world records in both of his events, while Greene, by virtue of holding the world mark in the 100, is the "world's fastest human."
On the women's side, it will be Marion Jones against Inger Miller. Jones became the story of this Olympic year when she proclaimed her intention to compete in five events in Sydney, Australia, and, of course, win them all. Thanks probably to a Jones injury last summer, however, Miller is the reigning world champion in the 200.
Greene and Miller operate under the HSI banner out of Los Angeles, where coach John Smith has been turning out world record-holders and Olympic champions since the 1980s. The HSI crowd - named for Smith and agent Emanuel Hudson - runs and talks fast, and it has probably helped ticket sales at California State University at Sacramento's Hornet Stadium.
Sellout crowds in excess of 21,000 are expected most days. The sport could use the boost. Few major competitions are staged in the United States, where track and field seems to be allowed out of the closet once every four years. It never could contend with the major-league sports, and now it fights for visibility in a burgeoning field of niche sports.
Jones has sought to escape the spotlight in North Carolina's Research Triangle, where she probably got more gawks as a Tar Heels basketball star. Johnson remains a quiet Texan, and says he's "boring." They acknowledge the contributions of the sport's elders - in Jones' case, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who will long-jump tonight and attempt to make her fifth Olympic team.
Jones carries herself as if hype were beneath her, but her words hint otherwise.
"It's funny that everybody says that that [Southern California] is the sprinting capital of the world," Jones said. "The group of people I train with are of the same caliber. The difference is that they [HSI sprinters] are a lot more emotional, a lot more vocal. People have said that's very good for the sport, but in other ways I think it's a detriment to the sport.
"It's not always necessary to rant and rave about what you're going to do."
Understand, this is a 25-year-old whose proclamations and ability to back them up could make her Tiger Woods-big in the next three months.
With personal bests of 10.65 seconds and 21.62 - times bettered only by the late Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988 - she is the Olympic favorite in the 100 and 200. She has long-jumped nearly 24 feet, and will also seek gold medals in the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays. It would be an unprecedented feat, and Jones disingenuously shrugs at the commotion she's caused.
"People say, 'Well Marion, you're talking about winning five gold medals,' but that's strictly when I'm asked," said Jones, who is not against taking digs at HSI. "I'm sure I'm going to hear about this. At times they do go overboard, take it a bit too far. If it works for them, it works for them."
Miller, whose father, Lennox, was twice an Olympic medalist for Jamaica, reached new levels when she left his coaching and cast her lot with Smith, who was the world's best quarter-miler, but lost his shot at glory when an injury stopped him in the 1972 trials. He has worked wonders for Greene, who lowered the world record in the 100 to 9.79 last summer.
Greene blamed jet lag for a couple of recent losses, but he is still expected to rule over the crowd in tomorrow's 100 final. The 200 is another matter. He won last year's world championship in 19.90, but possibly only because Johnson focused on the 400, lowering that world record to 43.18.
Johnson, 32, has turned away challengers before.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is that there's always someone new, and I'm always right here," Johnson said. "I'm always the guy. That's great. I just handle it the same way, and I'm going to continue to handle it the same way. I'm going to keep my mouth shut and go out there and let my legs do the talking.
"I don't get excited about running against Maurice Greene, or anybody else for that matter. I've done everything. I get excited about winning the Olympics."
Do fans want to see Johnson get knocked off his pedestal?
"They're not looking for someone to beat me," he said. "What we're all looking for, what we all want is great competition, a great race. It was ridiculous how far I beat everyone in Atlanta. They want to see a race. I can understand that."
Actually, there were no complaints about Johnson at the 1996 Olympics, when his 19.32 shaved four-tenths of a second off the 200 record. It was Roger Bannister in the mile and Bob Beamon in the long jump, a performance for the ages.
These trials are not about setting records, but survival. Coaches round out relay teams, but there are no selection committees to soothe someone who has a bad day.
Finish in the top three, and go to the Olympics. Stumble and stay home. Just ask Dan O'Brien, the decathlon favorite who no-heighted in the pole vault in the 1992 trials, but came back in '96 and won gold.
Johnson understands that what happens over the next 10 days could be a footnote, and that the more lasting statements, for the qualifiers, will be made in Sydney
"There is no other pressure situation like this," Johnson said. "You're never going to see pressure like this again in your life. I think a lot of athletes don't fully understand. Everybody thinks they're going to be great. I feel they're going to have a wake-up call."
What: U.S. Olympic track and field trials
Where: California State University at Sacramento
When: Today through Monday, July 20 through July 23